NASA’s decision not to launch Artemis this morning is not a failure and perhaps a strength.
The unmanned test flight of Artemis I was scrubbed this morning following a malfunction with an engine. The flight was initially scheduled to launch this morning but was delayed at 8:44 a.m. after repeated issues with Engine 3.
The scrubbing is a disappointment to the hundreds of visitors in attendance at Cape Kennedy in Florida who traveled to see the launch—Vice President Kamala Harris among them.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson addressed the media shortly after the announcement to commend the work of his team and to defend the decision to postpone the $4.1-billion launch.
“We don’t launch until it’s right. And in fact, they’ve got a problem with engine bleed on one engine… It’s illustrative that this is a very complicated machine, a complicated system, and all those things have to work and you don’t want to light the candle till it’s ready to go,” says Nelson.
Why it’s important
Scrubbing is a regular occurrence. Launches can be postponed multiple times to address safety concerns, weather, and technical issues.
Nelson’s deferral to the judgment of his engineers to delay the launch is a mark of the agency’s commitment to safety and teamwork. It is an acknowledgment that public pressure and political pressure are secondary concerns to following the wisdom of your team and taking proper, if expensive, precautions.
“I want [the launch team] to know they’re doing the perfect job they always do. They’re taking an opportunity while the vehicle is still fueled to work this problem and they’re going to get to the bottom of it, get it fixed, and then we’ll fly… This whole thing will make our country proud,” says Nelson.
“Safety is always first,” NASA tweeted.
NASA has learned from experience that serious failures can occur if minor issues are not addressed or planned for. The agency has suffered three fatal disasters since its founding that cost the lives of 17 astronauts—Apollo 1 and the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters.
With the Challenger launch in 1986, political pressure and incomplete data pushed NASA administrators to push the launch in unsafe conditions that resulted in an explosion that killed the seven-person crew.
Backing up a bit
The Artemis program is the first rocket program run by the United States since the grounding of the last space shuttle in 2011. Several attempts have been made to finance a new rocket system, including the canceled Constellation Program. The 322-foot Space Launch System (SLS) was announced in 2017.
Artemis I’s mission is a 42-day trip to orbit the moon and stress test the SLS. Artemis II and Artemis III are scheduled to launch in 2024 and 2025, taking a crew of four astronauts to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.
The next launch window for Artemis I is Friday, September 2. NASA says it will make an announcement in 48 hours.